Arnault’s right-hand man turns to Italy

In Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather, the lawyer, Tom Hagen, is an unofficial member of the “family” and a constant presence in its business dealing

Transfer that idea to the more benign world of luxury goods, and Pierre Godé’s (obviously entirely proper) role at LVMH has a similarly insider feel: the faithful, trusted family lawyer who is never far from the side of Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive.

Deep-voiced, tall and striking, notwithstanding his 68 years, Mr Godé’s most senior title is vice-chairman but his unofficial role at the group, which owns Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Moët Hennessy and Dom Pérignon (among its 50 or so brands), is much bigger.

The polished éminence grise is regularly referred to as Mr Arnault’s right-hand man and enforcer, for his strategic vision in helping create the luxury conglomerate that has made Mr Arnault a billionaire and, according to Forbes ranking, the world’s fourth-wealthiest person.

“He is my closest colleague as well as a confidant and friend without equal,” said Mr Arnault in a series of interviews in 2000. “I was struck by his talent from our first meeting in 1973.”

That was when Mr Arnault was 24 years old and Mr Godé was the youngest-qualified law professor in France and attorney to Mr Arnault’s father, Jean, head of a property company.

Mr Godé’s ability to recite from memory appeal court judgments even while parking his car, solicits particular admiration.

“Pierre Godé is an incredible lawyer, probably among the very best in Paris,” says Philippe Villin, an independent corporate financial adviser to a number of France’s top companies. “He is the historic collaborator of Bernard Arnault, having helped to construct the LVMH group from day one, and he is the only person left from that time.”

Mr Godé worked with Mr Arnault on the latter’s 1984 bid for Boussac, the northern textile company, which contained Christian Dior, the seed of the luxury empire.

Later, came the big battles: the takeover of LVMH from the Racamier family, the failed takeover of Italy’s Gucci, which rival PPR finally acquired, and now the acquisition of more than one-fifth of Hermès, which the family-controlled silk scarves and Birkin bags group has called an “attack” – something LVMH denies.

LVMH’s protective but litigious streak may be down to Mr Godé. Opponents have included internet operators Google and eBay – for not doing enough in the battle against counterfeit goods – as well as those in the media, financial analyst community and, in the distant past, a nappy maker.

Mr Godé is now turning his formidable skills to Italy. Last month the company said he would head its Italian business, which includes Fendi and Pucci, Acqua di Parma cologne and Bulgari jewellery.

“I want to look closely at our Italian business to see if we can achieve greater synergies between the brands based there and with those in France – be that in terms of supplying, in buying media spaces and also, in real estate for instance,” Mr Godé told the Financial Times.

Days before the announcement, there was speculation in the French press that Mr Godé might be preparing to join the ranks of French exiles fleeing Socialist President François Hollande’s high-tax regime.

This follows Mr Arnault’s application for Belgian citizenship. LVMH has said that both men will remain fiscally domiciled in France.

Last month, Mr Godé quit his post – held for the best part of three decades – as chief executive of Groupe Arnault, the private family investment fund, which controls LVMH. Is he preparing to disengage?

“On the contrary, I retain my position as vice-chairman, director and executive committee member at LVMH, but I wanted to have an operational role as well,” Mr Godé said of his Italian job. “I am not taking a back seat at all.”

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